by Thomas W. Lippman
One of the pleasures of visiting Jeddah, the historic Red Sea port of entry for Muslims traveling to Mecca, is visiting the awe-inspiring home of Sami Angawi, Saudi Arabia’s most renowned architect.
Everything about it is tasteful and inviting, fully in keeping with the history and environment that surround it. It is built as a rectangle around a central indoor pool, the bottom of which is inlaid with ceramic tiles to resemble a Persian carpet. The comfortable furnishings and abundant plants reflect the traditions of Arabia. The last time I was there, another guest was Jimmy Carter.
Celebrated as it is, the house is not the main reason Angawi is known outside Saudi Arabia. For nearly three decades he has been the inspiration and leading voice of those who deplore the relentless destruction of the old city of Mecca and the replacement of historic sites and structures by gigantic, ugly high-rise apartment buildings and hotels, capped by the Royal Mecca Clock Tower, a 1,972-foot copy of Big Ben. It looms over the holiest site in Islam, the Great Mosque and the Kaaba, and over the millions of Muslim faithful every year who fulfill their religious duty by making the pilgrimage there.
The Saudi Arabian government argues that modernization and massive new construction, including an expansion of the Great Mosque itself, are necessary to accommodate the ever-growing number of pilgrims and of businesses that serve them. Angawi and his allies think the real motive is different. They believe that ancient houses and tombs associated with the Prophet Muhammad and his early followers have been destroyed because the kingdom’s conservative religious leaders don’t want people to pray at them. In their view, praying at such sites is tantamount to worship of human beings and therefore represents polytheism, absolutely forbidden by classical Islam. “There is no God but God” is the first principle of the faith.
To Angawi and other critics, this religious hostility to historic sites is a form of cultural barbarism, no different from the Taliban’s destruction of ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. Angawi has called it an “absolute contradiction to the nature of Mecca and the sacredness of the house of God.”
The latest iteration of this argument appeared the other day in the New York Times, under the eye-catching headline “The Destruction of Mecca.” Written by Ziauddin Sardar, a British Muslim, it said that the skyline of Mecca, an ancient trading city once characterized by the traditional architecture of the Arabian Peninsula, “is no longer dominated by the rugged outline of encircling peaks. Ancient mountains have been flattened. The city is now surrounded by the brutalism of rectangular steel and concrete structures—an amalgam of Disneyland and Las Vegas.” The Mecca Hilton is built where pilgrims formerly found the house of Abu Bakr, the first caliph, or successor to the Prophet.
The real reason for the demolition of historic religious sites, the article said, is that “the ‘guardians’ of the Holy City, have a deep hatred of history.”
That article would not have come as a surprise to Angawi, who has been saying such things for years. He created a slide show for his visitors that includes such scenes as workmen taking sledgehammers to centuries-old houses believed to have been occupied by early followers of Muhammad. To him this was not the upholding of religious orthodoxy so much as it was vandalism, fueled by real estate money.
Angawi, an amiable fellow with deep family roots in Jeddah, is a familiar figure there, recognizable by the Omani-style turban he often wears instead of the traditional Saudi headscarf. In a country that is generally intolerant of dissent or criticism of royal decisions, he has for years been surprisingly outspoken. His views can be found on his Facebook page, and he allowed himself to be quoted by name in a front-page article about his cause in the Wall Street Journal. In 2012, he told a writer for the New Yorker that the reconstruction of central Mecca was contrary to the wishes of Muhammad himself, who would have wished to preserve “everything that was old, sacred and beautiful. The Prophet said that you can’t cut a thorn plant in Mecca, you can’t hunt in Mecca. Even if you see the killer of your father, you can’t raise your hand,” he said. “Everything in Mecca shall be humble in relation to the House of God. The seerah of the Prophet, the landscape where he lived his life, is being demolished. Without it, the life of the Prophet becomes a myth.”
The New Yorker writer, a Kashmiri pilgrim named Basharat Peer, went to the site of the three pillars that pilgrims have traditionally stoned because they represent the place where the Devil tried to interrupt the sacrifice of Abraham. In recent decades,” Peer wrote, “the increasing number of pilgrims has caused stampedes at the pillars. More than a thousand people were killed between 1994 and 2006—three hundred and sixty in 2006 alone. A member of the royal family came up with the idea of a multilevel complex to insure the pilgrims’ safety. The previous pillars, which dated from the nineteen-sixties, were replaced with eighty-five-foot-tall elliptical walls, with oval basins to collect the pebbles. The walls, which average six hundred feet apart, have ramps and escalators to allow pilgrims to stone the Devil from four levels. The gray concrete complex, which was completed in 2009 by the Binladin Group, at a cost of $1.1 billion, looks like a massive parking garage.”
Peer described Angawi as “probably the fiercest critic of the redevelopment of the city.” It was never quite clear why the authorities tolerated his criticism, but in 2010 he told the journal Middle East Architect that government pressure was forcing him to spend more and more time outside Saudi Arabia.
“There are things that I would love to do in my country but I am not allowed to,” he told the magazine in an interview in Cairo. “I felt that I had to leave. I was not saying what everybody likes to hear. That’s why I am in Egypt, I’m not on holiday. I am trying to do projects away from my country.”
In any case, it’s too late—his battle has been lost. Mecca is now a modern metropolis of high-rise buildings and expensive hotels; little remains of the historic city. Recent photos distributed by the official Saudi Press Agency show a new metro rail line, built to expedite the movement of pilgrims from site to site, expressways, forests of construction cranes, and the new high-rises adjacent to the Great Mosque, topped by what Angawi calls “the stupid Clock Tower.”
“Would you allow that in Rome?” he asked in an article in the British newspaper the Independent that is posted on Angawi’s Facebook page. “Or in the middle of London? Even if somebody now wanted to make Big Ben bigger, you would have all Londoners objecting against it. Now we copy like monkeys, bring our Big Ben tower to be the biggest tower in the world, in Mecca. That makes me angry.”
He would find some solace at the magnificent Topkapi Palace museum in Istanbul, which maintains the Ottoman sultans’ collection of relics attributed to Muhammad and the early faithful. Among them are the Prophet’s cloak, his battle flag, his bamboo bow, and letters he is said to have written to early believers.
A lavish coffee table book about the collection, published by the Turkish Ministry of Culture, says that “The Ottomans did not attribute any holiness to material objects.” But it also says that the room where the items are kept, “The Pavilion of the Sacred Relics” is “an exceptional place [that] has long been a visiting site and resort for hearts in search of peace, hearts filled with love of the Prophet, and we hope that this will continue forever.” The items inspire awe and deserve reverence, it says, as would any relics that evoke the magnificence of the human past.
Mecca photos Courtesy of SUSTG